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Evaluation for the top job

Suresh Rajagopal     April 25, 2014

Suresh Rajagopal
Recently, I was part of a panel which looked at presentations of senior personnel from a leading organization. These people were being considered for heading a new business vertical that this organization was setting up and the presentations were part of the evaluation process. The candidates were presented with case studies which aimed to test their strategic and customer focus and there were personnel/ culture questions posed which tested their leadership styles.

The evaluation panel consisted of very senior industry personnel with rich and diverse experience.  In addition, I thought our personalities and skills complemented each other very well which resulted in good discussions during the evaluation process. At the end of it, I was convinced that we had greatly reduced, if not totally eliminated, the 'evaluation bias'.

Here are some notes from the entire exercise that I would like to present which may be of value to corner office aspirants who always are keen to know what it takes to make it to the top and how they are being perceived/ evaluated.

1. The how is as important as the what: All the presenters had to state what would be their strategy to gain market share. We all know that being top of the charts and market leaders in their respective businesses is the aspiration of all companies. However, very few actually succeed.

As panelists, we went through various strategies that were put up. However, what impressed us most were the presentations where there was a clear game plan of how to reach point B from point A. Fluff and grandiose statements were a clear put off (the panelists had all sat through many such presentations themselves in the past and suffered!). Knowledge of market in charting out the road map always got higher marks as it demonstrated that the candidate despite being senior, had made an effort to stay in touch at the ground level. Given the current challenging times, it is clear that execution is as important as strategy and can often make the difference between success and failure.

2. Strategy simply presented also passed muster: We all like a well-crafted strategy document. Graphs, charts and other pictorial presentations often make their point more tellingly than a simple list of bulleted points. However, use of too many graphics also tends to obfuscate and may sometimes end up confusing the receiver of the message.

There were a few presentations that the panel liked which were surprisingly simple and made their point with great clarity. Throughout my corporate life I always suffered from the fear that too much simplicity in making your point in the presentation would often be perceived as inability to chalk out high end strategy. However, as a panelist it was clear that the perspective for evaluation was different, a thought shared by my fellow panelists. The message mattered more than how it was presented.

3. Sales strategies: Add more products or beef up existing ones? New customers or up sell/ cross sell? Scale or profit? Go direct or go through distributors? Work in niche markets or go across geographies? Responses to these kinds of questions from the presenters gave deep insights into their understanding of market and P & L dynamics which are critical for success at the top.

For example, most presenters deviated significantly in their estimates of percentage of cross/ up sell. Responses ranged from 10% to 40%. From my experience, I can say that there are very few organizations which have very well oiled sales machinery aided by back end processes which does a good job at cross sell. Every organization agrees that its existing customers are a potential goldmine and instead of chasing new customers, the existing ones should be tapped first. But to be actually able to execute a strategy to do that is altogether a different matter.

Answers on sales strategies are important from another perspective. There is an increasing trend nowadays in companies where a CFO/ COO takes over the top job at the organization. It is imperative that such people learn to wear a 'sales hat' to address these questions.

4. Organization building and leadership: All candidates stressed on the need of open and honest style of leadership, creating and sharing long term plans with the employees, conducting town halls, etc. These are all good to have and probably even must have.

As a panel what we looked for and liked was attention to detail in order to build organization culture and trust. Thus, we liked specifics like having internal promotions to build positivity or the need for well defined KRAs (with rewards for employees meeting or exceeding their goals) or even concrete and tough measures to cut flab.

In our experience we have found that lack of clear KRAs and goal setting is a major problem even for several well known and large organizations resulting in avoidable angst amongst their employees.

By design, three of the four panelists had no firsthand experience of the candidates, having never met them. However, this did not come in the way of conducting the evaluation at all. Interestingly, we were informed by the fourth panelist (the only one who knew the candidates) that the marks that we three awarded to the candidates, 'tied in' with the persona and overall scores that these candidates scored in their other work areas. This clearly shows that despite putting up your best face in presentations, the real you comes through more often than not.

(The author is co-founder and CEO of Mumbai-based Consumerge Wealth Managers which specialises in wealth management, HR consultancy and coaching. He has spent over 25 years in senior management and leadership roles.)

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